Reporters, Authors

We have had the pleasure through several decades as a member of the Capitol Press Corps of working with two or three (at least) generations of outstanding reporters.  And that tradition continues with a corps of dedicated professionals who often spend more hours at the Capitol than our elected representatives in the House and Senate do (somebody has to stick around after they go home and write the stories that tell you what they did with, for, and to us).

It is often said that reporters record the first draft of history.  And it’s true.  We don’t often ponder that  issue because the daily reporting of news becomes so consuming that there is little time to think of the value of our writings ten, fifty, or a hundred years from now.  But that’s as it should be.  We write of contemporary issues and actions for contemporary consumers.  The aggregate of what we write constitutes a historical narrative of our times, a record to which future scholars can apply context that is often not visible as events unfold.

Sometimes members of the press corps write later drafts of history.  Lew Larkin, who had reported for several years for the Kansas City Star when I came to the Capitol, wrote several books. Jerena East Giffen, who became the press corps’ first woman bureau chief when she headed the UPI bureau in the 50s, has written about First Ladies of Missouri and Jefferson City schools.  Terry Ganey, who headed the AP bureau before a long career as bureau chief for the the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, has written of Anheuser-Busch and of a well-known murder case.  The PD’s Tim O’Neil has written of St.Louis mobs and crimes since leaving the Capitol press corps.  Daryl Levings, who was a Capitol reporter before he became an editor at the Star, brought out a Civil War novel a year or so ago. Former Missourinet reporter James Morris has penned several books including a ground-breaking biography of Joseph Pulitzer (once a Missouri state representative as he was becoming a controversial newspaper owner in St. Louis). Now, Rudi Keller of the Columbia Daily Tribune is about to bring out his first book.

A century and a half ago journalists were writing about the Civil War, a terrible time for the badly divided state of Missouri.  We were an occupied state run by an interim government that had seized control when the Confederate-leaning elected Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and several other officers and legislators fled Jefferson City before the oncoming Union troops could capture them as they captured the Capital City.

Rudi has been mining the microfilmed newspapers at the State Historical Society of Missouri for the first-hand accounts compiled by our ancestor-reporters as well as personal accounts left behind in books, diaries, letters, and other records at the society, the Missouri State Archives, and other sources, to write daily columns for the Tribune about the intrusion of the war into the lives of people in mid-Missouri.  He’s digging out the human stories of people caught in that conflict, some of which he shares with me as we sit together at the Senate press table.

One of the joys of researching and writing history is the discovery of these forgotten accounts, these first drafts, and bringing them to new generations who will gain greater understanding of the humanity of the past and the way those times remain part of our culture.  The passage of time sucks real life out of historical periods and leaves us only with cold accounts of movements  and trends, presidents and conflicts.

But Rudi’s book, “Life During Wartime: 1861: The War Comes to Missouri,” pumps real life into the accounts that too often focus on the strategies of that war.  It is a compilation of his articles with additional material there wasn’t space for in the newspaper.  He hopes to have additional volumes for succeeding years.

Although his book will focus on mid-Missouri counties, it will record the fears and anxieties, the hopes and ideals, the triumphs and the sorrows, justices and injustices,  compassion and barbarism that were common to people throughout Missouri.

Jim Spainhower, who was a state Representative and later Missouri Treasurer, wrote a book in the 1970s about how he, a Christian Church (Disciiples of Christ) minister, could reconcile  pulpit and politics.  He once told me when my first book came out that authorship of a book is a form of immortality, a capturing of your words in a form that will exist long after the author departs.  There’s a certain satisfaction for authors in that, I suppose and it is driven home if the author has a chance to go the Library of Congress and give a librarian a call slip for one of your books.  A short time later, an attendant brings it to your desk.  And you sit there and you think to yourself that as long as the Library of Congress exists, you will exist, too.  And then you think of the company you will keep  through all those decades to come, centuries, in fact.

Writing history compounds that distinction because in writing of human beings whose lives have been long buried in the columns of old newspapers, and other records, the author provides some of that same immortality for them.

The ancient Egyptians had a saying, “To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.”  The reporter writing the first draft of history captures those names in contemporary times.  The historian in rediscovering their actions, thoughts, and words makes them live again.  We’ve ordered some copies of Rudi’s book (advance orders are being taken through the Tribune).  We look forward to those Civil War Missourians living again, telling of their lives during those terrible times that remain part of who we are.

There’s another lofty reward that comes to those whose published works appear between the covers of books.  Jim Spainhower mentioned it to me almost three decades ago.  And as a minister, he should know.  “You can begin your prayers now,” he said, “by starting out, ‘O Thou who also has written a book…'”

And that’s being in VERY special company.

The Session Book

At the start of each legislative session, I usually stroll a few blocks from the capitol to Downtown Book Plus Toy, as I lovingly call it, to buy a Session Book.  When the state senate decides to embark on protracted hours-long debate that triggers a late, late, late night/early morning chewing on an issue, I come down to our Capitol office and get my Session Book.  I figure there is no reason to waste my time while they often are wasting theirs.

This year’s book is about the United States Constitution.

There was a time when the Missouri legislature had a lot more lawyers and a lot fewer constitutional scholars.  It seems through the rosy hue of memory’s glasses that we got better-written laws and because of that we had fewer lawmakers complaining about lousy court decisions.

Today’s laws are being written in chambers that have a scarcity of people who have been trained in the law.   The Senate roster shows only five of 34 members list themselves as attorneys: Minority leader Jolie Justus, Joseph Keaveny, Kurt Schaefer, Eric Schmitt, and Scott Sifton.  Justus, Keaveny, and Sifton constitute thirty percent of the minority, Democratic, caucus.  Schaefer and Schmidt constitute eight percent of the majority, Republican, caucus.

But that doesn’t keep several senators from regularly telling the Senate what the Constitution says.  And, By God! It says what it says and that’s it!.

But literal interpretations of sections of the Constitution without context carry the same perils as literal interpretations of chosen scriptures without context.

I took the book to the Senate last night as it was thrashing its way to tentative approval of a tax credit revision bill–which finally happened about 3:30 a.m. today (Wednesday).  I had given up on them at 1 a.m. because the alarm goes off in my house at 4:30 and after a short, blizzard-filled Monday night, the prospect of getting three hours of sleep was far more inviting than however much longer the Senate would have entertained itself.

But I did get started on the Session Book.   It’s AMERICA’S UNWRITTEN CONSTITUTION: THE PRECEDENTS AND PRINCIPLES WE LIVE BY, by Akhil Reed Amar, a Yale University law professor.

Early in the book, Amar writes, “Clause-bound literalism cannot provide the infallible constitutional compass we crave.  Yet surely faithful interpreters should not simply toss the written Constitution aside or treat it as an infinitely malleable plaything.  How, then, should we proceed?

“For starters we must learn to read between the lines–to discern America’s implicit Constitution nestled behind the explicit clauses. In short, we must come to understand the difference between reading the Constitution literally and reading the Constitution faithfully.”

A page later he says, “…No clause of the constitution exists in textual isolation.  We must read the document as a whole.  Doing so will enable us to detect larger structures of meaning–rules and principles residing between the lines. Often, these implicit rules and principles supplement the meaning of individual clauses.  For example, although no single clause explicitly affirms a ‘separation of powers,’ or a system of ‘checks and balances,’ or ‘federalism’ the document writ large does reflect these constitutional concepts.  This much is old hat. But as we shall now see, there are times when the document, read holistically and with attention to what it implies alongside what it expresses, means almost the opposite of what a specific clause, read in autistic isolation, at first seems to say.”

The main text is 485 pages long with appendices and notes afterward. This looks like an eminently entertaining and eminently informative thing to be using to while away the hours while the Senate jabbers on and on.

Maybe some Senate members might want to get their own copies and we can have an unofficial Senate One-Read effort.  It never hurts to know what you’re talking about.

Law Givers

Now the law-grinding begins in earnest.  Last night’s State of the State speech by Governor Nixon ends all of the ceremonial stuff that we go through at the start of the legislative session.  From now until mid-May, the people we have elected to work for us in the House and Senate will be increasingly consumed by the making of laws.

A few years ago I kept running across a newspaper column by Dr. Frank Crane while prowling through microfilm copies of old newspapers at the State Historical Society of Missouri. Crane was a Presbyterian minister, an advocate of positive thinking before Dr. Norman Vincent Peale became widely known in newspapers and on radio and TV.   Crane came along when radio was in its infancy. He died in 1928 just as the medium was starting to fly.

Ten little books of his “Four Minute Essays” were published in 1919.  If you look around on the internet you probably can find them.  Although some of them have words or themes that clearly  are in the context of his times, most of his writings have a timeless nature.
For instance, he wrote in one column called “Clean Business:”
“Better than big business is clean business.  To an honest man the most satisfactory reflection after he has amassed his dollars is not that they are many but that they are all clean.  What constitutes a clean business?  The answer is obvious enough,but the obvious needs restating every once in a while.  A lean profit is one that has also made a profit for the other fellow…Any gain that arises from another’s loss is dirty.”

Then there’s this one from volume nine of his ten little books:

I am Law. I am Nature’s way. I am God’s way.
By me comes order, unity. In my hand I hold three gifts: health, happiness, and success.
Those who do not follow me are devoured by the dogs of disease, misery, and failure.
The ignorant fear me, they run from my face, they tremble at my voice; but the wise love me and seek me forever. I am their desired lover.
Fools think to outwit me, and that no son of man has ever done.
I am more clever than the cleverest. I am stronger than the strongest. I am old as God. I never sleep. I never err. I am virile as youth. I am accurate as mathematics. I am beautiful as poetry. I am sweet as music.
Without me there could be no art, no harmony of sounds, no charm of landscape or picture, no government, no life.
I am the secret of goodness. I am the horror of sin.
I am the eternal path, and besides me there is none else. Without me men wander in the labyrinth of death.
Heaven is where I am. Hell is where I am not.
I am efficiency in man. I am loveliness in women.
I am everywhere; in every wrinkle of the infinite waves of water, in the oak, in the brain, in nourishment, in excreta, in disease, in soundness, in the lover’s clasp, in the corpse, in the stars, in the storms.
I whirl. I dance. I flame. I freeze, but always mathematically. For I am more intricate than calculus, more accurate than any instrument.
They that live by me find peace.
They that kiss me find love.
They that walk with me come at last to God.

The people the citizens of Missouri have elected to write the laws of Missouri will be in session until 6 p.m. May 17.